In an Italian villa turned Canadian field hospital at the end of World War II, twenty-year-old Hana watches as her colleagues move on to their next station. She has made the decision to stay behind to nurse a badly burned English patient who cannot be moved. The English patient does not remember his name or much of his life. He knows he spent time in the North African desert as an explorer, and he has retained his knowledge of ancient history.
Hana, tired of death, spends her days scrounging for food, trying to make a garden, and tending to the English patient. Their solitary existence is suddenly disrupted by the appearance of David Caravaggio, a prewar friend of Hanna's father. Caravaggio, a thief by trade, was used by the army to gather intelligence; he was caught by the enemy and tortured but managed to escape. When he hears of Hana's location, the injured man, heads off to find her.
Finally, Kip, an Indian sapper, sets up his tent on the villa's grounds and becomes part of the circle whose focal point is the English patient. Although he ventures out into Florence each day to defuse bombs and land mines with his British Army company, he returns to the villa as night falls.
Through flashbacks and conversations among the characters, we learn the stories of the three men and one woman. Each has suffered from the horrors of war. Although they are all leery of making close connections with others, they cannot help unburdening themselves, in bits and pieces, during the long nights.
The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize, often appears in the those lists of must-read novels or the best all-time fiction. And indeed Ondaatje's writing can be beautiful and vivid:
It was 1943. The First Canadian Infantry Division worked its way up Italy, and the destroyed bodies were fed back to the field hospitals like mud passed back by tunnellers in the dark. (p. 49)
But other times it is just plain obscure:
When sunlight enters a room where there is a fire, the fire will go out. (p. 197)
And at other times, I just didn't know what to think—profound or . . . what?
n the desert the most loved waters, like a lover's name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence. (p. 141)
I found the book slow going and unsatisfying over all. I had difficulty making an emotional investment in the characters, and thus I wasn't really curious about their ultimate fate. Kip was the most sympathetic character and perhaps the most realistic and least damaged. Maybe it is significant that he is also the only non-Westerner.
I am not at all sorry to have read The English Patient. Do I actually recommend it? That's hard to say. It is a book worth trying. I had seen the movie (which I hated), and thus some of the characters' secrets were already known to me. If I had started the book fresh, I may have had more motivation to discover the stories and sorrows of Hana and the three men.
Published by Knopf Doubleday, 1993
Challenges: A-Z Author, New Author, 999, Spring Reading, 100+